The Smoking Lamp is Out

From the Navy Department Library: The Smoking Lamp

“Sea dogs who sailed the wooden ships endured hardships that sailors today never suffer. Cramped quarters, poor unpalatable food, bad lighting and boredom were hard facts of sea life. But perhaps a more frustrating problem was getting fire to kindle a cigar or pipe tobacco after a hard day’s work.

Matches were scarce and unreliable, yet smoking contributed positively to the morale of the crew so oil lamps were hung in the fo’c’sle and used as matches. Smoking was restricted to certain times of the day and by the bos’un’s. When it was allowed, the “smoking lamps” were “lighted” and the men relaxed with their tobacco.

Fire was, and still is the great enemy of ships at sea. The smoking lamp was centrally located for the convenience of all and was the only authorized light aboard. It was a practical way of keeping open flames away from the magazines and other storage areas.

In today’s Navy the smoking lamps have disappeared but the words “smoking lamp is lighted in all authorized spaces” remains, a carryover from our past.”

Smoking lamp

More from the Naval Heritage and History Command: Smoking lamp

“The exact date and origin of the smoking lamp has been lost. However, it probably came into use during the 16th Century when seamen began smoking on board vessels. The smoking lamp was a safety measure. It was devised mainly to keep the fire hazard away from highly combustible woodwork and gunpowder. Most navies established regulations restricting smoking to certain areas. Usually, the lamp was located in the forecastle or the area directly surrounding the galley indicting that smoking was permitted in this area. Even after the invention of matches in the 1830s, the lamp was an item of convenience to the smoker. When particularly hazardous operations or work required that smoking be curtailed, the unlighted lamp relayed the message. “The smoking lamp is lighted” or “the smoking lamp is out’ were the expressions indicating that smoking was permitted or forbidden.

The smoking lamp has survived only as a figure of speech. When the officer of the deck says “the smoking lamp is out” before drills, refueling or taking ammunition, which is the Navy’s way of saying “cease smoking.””

Recent articles in the Navy Times reveal that serious thought is being given to stopping the sales of tobacco products in the Navy Exchange system. Of course submarines have been in the forefront of smoking cessation for a number of years now.

What a difference a generation makes.

Going back forty years I can remember that smoking was central to everything we did starting in boot camp. The infamous words: Smoke em if you got em were just the Company Commanders way of telling you it was time for the smoke break. In Great Lakes, that meant you crowded into a poorly ventilated room with sixty of your brothers and pulled out the Marlboros or Kools depending on where you were raised. The older guys smoked filter less Camels or Pall Malls but my generation mostly favored the filtered jobs. The price was pretty cheap at the Exchange so it didn’t really eat into your salary that much. Besides, real men smoked.

boot smokes - Copy             boot smokes


Later in A and C schools, cigarettes played a useful role during late night study sessions. When you weren’t studying, it was off to town to have a few drinks and the smokes played a key role in that exercise as well. Smoky pool rooms and dimly lit bars were solid staples for the young sailor as he gained some worldly experience with his senior comrades. There was just something about the cool taste of the smoke rolling down surrounded by sips of 7 and 7. Pitchers of beer also helped to wash down the nicotine and the smells and tastes became intertwined. Because this is red by many generations I will refrain from linking smoking to another adult activity, but I can assure you there was at one time an ash tray in the vicinity of the bedroom. It became a sort of “desert” feature for a particular activity practiced there and an almost mandatory punctuation mark on its completion.

Cigarettes and submarines during my generation were closely tied together. 

It’s hard to imagine a submarine getting underway without cases of the nicotine delivery systems. You quickly learned how to do the math on proper cigarette preparation or you would learn the art of begging as an alternative. It was a simple calculation really. How many hours would you be awake? How many cigarettes per hour do you typically smoke? How many days would you be underway (if you could possibly know that)?

It really wasn’t a question of “if you were going to smoke” is was how much did you need to get through patrol or spec op. I misjudged the first patrol and ended up rationing my smokes and then later making all kinds of deals. The second patrol was extended so even a larger amount was not sufficient to make the run. I finally got the knack and the remaining years I was on my boats as a smoker, I never again ran out. Some of the guys who didn’t smoke made a lot of money by bringing cigarettes on board and hiding them until near the end. What may have cost five dollars a carton would then equate to about five dollars (or more) per pack. It was an early lesson in economics.

I can’t imagine a midwatch without being able to use my nicotine and caffeine. It’s even harder thinking about pulling a two day repair job on a critical pump that is keeping us from going to sea. That first drag in the morning or the long pull after a gut busting meal were also pretty satisfying. I don’t understand the chemistry of it. I just knew it felt good.

As I got older, the pleasure of smoking was replaced by the consequences. Less capacity to run back and forth wearing an EAB during drills. The ladder in and out of the boat seemed to get a bit longer each time. Coughing up phlegm from time to time was more and more annoying. Plus the Navy decided to make us run and do exercises as part of a renewed emphasis on fitness. All of these combined helped me to quit smoking. At least ten times. Once, I was actually smoke free for over a year and then I got the Dutch courage to say, hey I’m only going to have a few cigarettes now and then. A few turned back to a pack a day in a short time. I can assure you my wife was not amused.

At the end of my career, smoking on the ships was already being restricted to common areas that were well ventilated. That actually helped when I decided to quit for the eleventh time as a sailor. While it was an opportunity to socialize on the flight deck of the Hunley, I was burned out after over twenty two years of on and off smoking.

I struggled for a few more years after retirement but finally quit. The doctor that treated me after my heart attack a few years later told me that I was fortunate to have quit when I did. I would have never made it if I had not.

I still miss cigarettes sometimes. I would never smoke again but I can understand the people who have a lifelong struggle with quitting. Maybe it’s finally time for the military to stop subsidizing the tobacco industry. I know what the cost of fading health can be on an individual and on the country as a whole. I suppose time will tell if this is the right thing to do. Maybe it is time finally for the smoking lamp to be extinguished for all time.

My heart tells me its the right thing to do.

Mister Mac


5 thoughts on “The Smoking Lamp is Out

  1. I like your article. And I too think the Navy needs to help. Sailors are going to be P.O.’d, but I think I continued smoking chiefly because how cheap cigarettes where. Especially when we went to sea. By the way. I too was on the Hunley. I was in the REB Shop of the Missile Magazine.

  2. Times have changed, that’s for certain. Even though what I’m going to say may be unpopular with some, being a non-smoker on boats sucked buckets and I wish they’d been banned on board while I was in.

    I remember coming back into port and turning on the white lights in Sonar so we could clean up the space and get off the boat as soon as as they put the brow in place and seeing the yellow film over all of the equipment that was caused by smoking.

    I was lucky enough to have the only Sonar watch section with non-smokers and we arranged things that way so we could all breath easier.

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